For everyone Living up to the hype: Why schools must live up to their cultural values

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Most schools take every opportunity to proclaim their cultural values on their walls and on their websites. But as GREG NG has learned in his years as a casual relief teacher, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Respect. Diversity. Equality. Fairness. Walk into any government primary school (or apply for a job there) and you’ll find these words writ large across their walls, across their webpages, across anything intended to communicate the values that underpin the school’s culture.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the fact that those same words likely fit with the average Australian’s idea of what this nation is all about, I’d like to ask where, exactly, we see evidence of those abstract nouns in practice – for our children, our students. These are the words we see on the outside of our schools. But what is on the inside?

I’m a first-generation migrant to Australia. My father is Chinese, my mother is Indian. My family came to this country in the late 1970s because it offered the prospect of a better life for my folks, and for me. It was an escape from the institutionalised racism, sexism and chauvinism that forms the political fabric of the country of my birth, Malaysia – one of the results (as is the case in so many other places) of British colonialism.

My surname is Ng. It’s a very common name, and it’s extremely easy to say. It’s the sound those two letters make when they’re put together. But from the beginning of my ‘new’ life in Australia, it has been a point of difference and a site of pain for me.

A person’s name is the basic unit of human dignity. In formal, lingual terms, it’s who you are. It’s how you are recognised and rewarded, how you are greeted, summoned, how you are differentiated. What happens for a child, then, when the dignity that should be automatically conferred upon a human, from birth, is not conferred – or is wrenched away – as soon as they come into contact with their fellow humans?

What happens for a child when at every point in their journey through life – much of which happens within a school – society and culture further fails to acknowledge them or consult with them, thereby continuing to deprive them of their human dignity?

As teachers, how are we dealing with the fact of racism, sexism, and the many other forms of discrimination we continue to see in our schools and our broader society?

This is what happens when we blithely ignore or misuse a child’s name. We ignore who they are, and where they’ve come from. Which, in turn, ignores the wealth and diversity of experience that that child brings with them – something we purport to respect and celebrate in Australia, and in our education system.

It is this question of dignity, I’m sure, that has resulted in the near-universal declaration that public schools are committed to those principles: diversity, equality and respect. It’s that question that drives so much of the formal and political superstructure of schools: the curriculum. And yet, in my experience, we’re falling far short of living up to these values, both in theory and in practice.

In my time as a teacher, I have come across an amazing multitude of cultural backgrounds in our schools. Children who arrived in Australia as refugees, for example, carry with them so many stories and experiences. You might assume this would dominate the attention of a school that celebrates diversity and inclusiveness. What do we do, as teachers, to acknowledge these children through our work? Above and beyond that, what do we do to condemn the ways that all of our current governments act to dehumanise, incarcerate and torture those who arrive here seeking asylum?

In terms of fairness and equality, what happens at these crucial sites of burgeoning personhood – of humanity – when we fail to see, consider and consult with all of our students? As teachers, how are we dealing with the fact of racism, sexism, and the many other forms of discrimination we continue to see in our schools and our broader society? We are, after all, supposed to be dealing with it. It’s on the walls, it’s on the website, it’s in the curriculum. 

On this front, how are we recognising our female students? Are we conferring upon them the basic human dignity that everyone should expect? Do we let the boys dominate our attention, our time and our imaginations; or do we act and speak, as role-models, with real respect for girls and women? 

We know that many female students fall silent in the face of more confident male classmates; that many of them go through their entire school lives as compliant ‘model’ students, while the teacher’s attention is directed elsewhere. We know that women and girls experience daily discrimination, disrespect, misrepresentation, violence – and still can’t expect to be paid the same amount of money as men. Is all of that our concern, as teachers? Yes, it is. It’s on the walls. It’s on the website. It’s in the curriculum.

I’ve worked in an Indigenous community where my students’ lives were impacted at almost every moment by structural, systemic and personal racism.

Then we come to the significant issue of respect for our First Nations peoples. Most schools now include the words: ‘We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay our respects…’ But do we really? Do we not only acknowledge but also talk about the fact that our Indigenous people experience a dramatically different Australia than the one we assume to be underpinned by respect, fairness and equality?

I’ve worked in an Indigenous community where my students’ lives were impacted at almost every moment by structural, systemic and personal racism. Too many of their teachers expected little of them; thought even less of them; and provided nothing approximating what we expect to be automatically conferred upon a human, from birth, in this country. Their sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers lived short, conflict-ridden and deprivation-filled lives that – several times during my year with them – ended disastrously. I saw children being ‘relocated’, as well as incarcerated. I saw children who absolutely did not receive an education. I saw a continuing genocide. While I readily acknowledge that not all Indigenous communities are like the one that I experienced, isn’t this still one too many?

I believe we can be better than we currently are. I would like to suggest that as people who work in schools (everyone who works in schools) we can make space and time in our overworked, underpaid lives to recognise and to truly respect and celebrate the diversity of our students – including those who are differently abled – and live up to those principles to which we say we are committed.

Tomorrow morning, why not borrow (as we already do) from other cultures and start the class with ‘circle time’. Take the time to acknowledge everybody in the room individually; use it as an opportunity to learn how to say each student’s name, and to hear a little about where they come from. After all – it’s on the walls. It’s on the website. It’s in the curriculum.

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